Preserving the wild human | An interview with Dr. Louis Herman

Dr. LLouis-Herman-for-Moonouis G. Herman is a professor of political science at the University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu and the author of Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward, which reviewers have called “a stunning book that responds to the multiple crises of globalized humanity by recovering the classical project of political philosophy as the search for the best way to live.”

Born into an orthodox Jewish community in apartheid South Africa, Herman’s earliest memories were of enchantment with the natural world—the lush beauty of the South African bushveld and the rugged beach near his home. At age twelve his family moved to England, where he completed undergraduate work at Cambridge University, receiving degrees in medical sciences and the history and philosophy of science. Cut off from wilderness and disillusioned with “the intellectual division of labor of academic life,” he moved to an Israeli kibbutz and volunteered for military service in a combat infantry unit. His wartime experience confronted him with two hard realities. One was the obvious fact that Arabs were also indigenous to the land; the other was the absurdity of war as a long-term solution to political conflict. He felt compelled to go back to the beginning of politics, to ask the big questions of human existence at the foundation of philosophy, the Socratic questions: How should we best live? What is the Good Life?

After studying political philosophy at the Hebrew University and completing his Ph.D. at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, he found the two tracks of his search, the personal and the political, led him back to southern Africa, the birthplace of modern humanity. Ultimately, his search led him to connect with the wisdom of the oldest culture on earth, the San Bushmen. Future Primal represents the culmination of this search.

For the past twenty years at UH West O‘ahu, Herman has developed a political science curriculum based on the principles of the primal truth quest. Future Primal is also the scholarly foundation for a feature film in development, tracing Herman’s own truth quest as a metaphor for our collective journey.

Leslee Goodman

The MOON: You base much of your book, Future Primal, on the lifestyle of the San Bushmen of Africa. Before most modern humans are going to seriously consider a return to a hunter-gatherer form of life, I think they’re going to want to know more about it—and why you, at least, find it attractive, or compelling. Could tell us more about the San way of life?

Herman: I just want to make clear that I’m not advocating a mass return to hunting and gathering. This is no longer an option even were we to want it. I’m advocating the creative integration of the basic humanizing principles of ethics, politics, and lifestyle embodied in the way of life that defined what it mean to be human for over 90% of history.  The San Bushmen are fascinating because they can give us a model of the quintessential “wild human.” Their way of life is particularly important at this historical moment, since it is becoming shockingly clear—at least to those who are looking at the big picture—that our civilization has lost its way and is in extreme crisis.  Our political culture, fashioned in 18th-century Western Europe, remains oblivious to the most important discovery of the last four hundred years of science: that human beings emerge from wilderness and constitute an integral part  of a single, living, evolving planet. Since we are confused about our nature we are equally confused about the best way to live—for the individual, civilization and  all life on Earth.

Recent genetic studies have now confirmed that the San Bushmen of the Kalahari have the most direct connection of any living group to that Southern African population of hunter-gatherers from which all modern humanity descended. Archaeological and ethnographic studies show that until recently the San continued to practice a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life in cultural continuity with our common ancestral population in the same environment that incubated  modern humanity  some 100,000 years ago. While the San are not relics from the Stone Age and have continued to develop and evolve like all other humans, their culture and way of life are probably the closest of all living societies to that original model “primal society”—the evolutionary blueprint of that quintessentially human way of life that was so extraordinarily successful. Knowledge of their way of life can help us reconnect with our deeper, truer nature and hopefully reset our civilizational compass.

What is most surprising is that, by many measures, traditional San society seems to be conspicuously more “civilized” than ours. For over 95% of human existence hunter-gatherers like the San lived without warfare, walled cities, or slavery in a relatively sustainable balance with their surrounding wilderness. Traditional San are more democratic and more egalitarian than we are; they practice an economy based on voluntary caring and sharing; they live in small decentralized, totally self-sufficient groups. Finally, they seem to enjoy a far richer social, cultural and spiritual life than our overworked and frenzied urban populations.

Economically and politically the San give us a model of a radically democratic self-organizing community. There’s no firm division of labor and no hierarchy. Roles are flexible. People are free to follow their passions doing essentially what they want, when they want, as needed. Despite the fluidity of roles, most of the gathering is done by women and children, who go out together in the mornings, and most of the hunting is done by men, in part because the prized game animals are large antelope, which often have to be run down, so the running ability of the men is really important. The work of shelter-building, making and repairing weapons, tools,  clothing, and preparing food is generally done together while talking, joking, and telling stories, all in a relaxed  style.

Surprisingly, hunter-gatherers live a leisured existence. Anthropologists have calculated that even in the Kalahari Desert, under reasonable conditions, it takes about two to three hours of work a day to provide the necessities of life. And  remember that Kalahari Bushmen are now living under harsh conditions compared to the original evolutionary environment of Southern Africa, which included hundreds of thousands of square miles of well-watered land and some of the richest coastal ecosystems and fisheries in the world.

The nomadic groups are small—30-50 individuals seem to be the “magic number” for a sustainable hunting gathering way of life. Sometimes when the rains are good and food is plentiful, bands of San will come together in larger groups of a hundred or more to socialize, share stories and practice their healing or trance dances. For the most part, people grow up and live in communities where politics is personal. Decision-making takes place through face-to-face discussion until a consensus is reached. This is supported by a cultural life of endless chatting, storytelling and discussion. One old Bushman woman describes Bushmen as “lovers of argument.” Since people know one another’s needs as individuals, and  since all are directly in touch with the health and needs of the group, consensus is easier. The lack of external authority and ideological dogma means compromises are always possible. There’s a lot of affection, and physical contact among members of the group, who will often sit working together with their ankles crossed, just casually maintaining physical connection with each other. This physical contact can become intense during the trance dance, where healing is done by laying on of hands—almost a kind of body massage.

Religious life is also democratic and based on the individual’s direct experience of the spirit world. The whole community—adults and children—participate in the all night trance or healing dances. The collective energy of the dance helps everyone who is capable to enter shamanic states of consciousness. In such states they can communicate with  the  ancestors, and animals, get healing and “talk with God.” There’s no hierarchical priesthood that stores power and produces dogma and orders people around. The only and ultimate spiritual authority is the text of one’s own experience, as he/she understands and interprets it according to the traditions of the group and the stories of the elders. Knowledge is available to all and freely shared.

MOON: How do you explain the persistence of the San democracy and egalitarianism under pressures of settled civilization?



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